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The Avant Guard

Exquisitely decorated rental properties. Healthy food in unexpected places. Handmade leather pieces with contemporary flair. These five innovators deliver the goods in new and surprising ways.

NIck Moretti’s Chop Shop includes a butcher counter, a restaurant and bar—and a versatile event space.

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When her exquisite rented townhome in Humboldt Park got rave reviews, Liz Klafeta’s business was born.

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Brian Spaly’s Trunk Club is leading the new wave of bespoke retail—and has entered the women’s market.

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Luke Saunders, pictured here outside the entrance to a CTA stop, makes his containers from recyclable plastic and his kiosks from reclaimed wood.

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The workshop where Brandi Devers makes her leather goods is a combination of throwback materials and current design sensibility.

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In Wicker Park, Chop Shop is a multipurpose destination—the kind of place that usually only works on paper. Nick Moretti had the vision and passion to make it a lively asset to the city.

It’s not that nobody thought he could do it—just most people. Nick Moretti’s idea was to buy a long-unused 9,000-square-foot property near the bustling six-corner intersection that divides Bucktown and Wicker Park, then custom-build it out to include an Italian deli, a full-service bar and restaurant, a first-rate butcher shop and—this may have been the sticking point for some—a medium-sized event venue/performance space that could handle almost any type of gathering. “I probably did 100 different walk-throughs with different people,” Moretti says. “It was huge, with no electricity or plumbing or sprinkler system. Even the contractor who wanted my business told me I was crazy.” Two years later, Chop Shop (and 1st Ward, the lofty back half of the space) has become just the kind of multifunctional space that urban theorists deem critical for community vitality. There’s a weekly indoor bocce league. The high-quality meat selections can expand far beyond typical supermarket offerings (“If you want a suckling pig, we can get it,” Moretti says). There have been performances by The 1975, Hannibal Buress and The Weeknd—not to mention a pizza festival and a video game championship. “We did a 1-year-old’s birthday party,” Moretti says. “There are a lot of corporate and charity events. Bar mitzvahs and weddings.” It’s a little hard to believe that the thriving complex is a kind of backup plan. After a number of years (and jobs) in New York, Moretti came home to the family real estate business in Chicago, arriving just in time for the crash of 2008-09. “I was relearning the city and figuring out where I wanted to live and such—and that’s when I stumbled on the building,” he says. “It had a small For Sale sign in the second-floor window. And now it’s a three-headed monster.” 1st Ward rental from $2,500 –DZ

With Bangtel, Liz Klafeta offers a turnkey solution to well-curated domesticity— at least for a night or two.

Back in 2013, Liz Klafeta was working as a wardrobe and prop stylist (clients included American Express, Coca-Cola and Crate & Barrel), splitting time between Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. She started renting her underused Humboldt Park townhome—as stylish as she herself—on Airbnb. And the rave reviews got her thinking: She could make money, help pay off her mortgage and give people a turnkey solution to the well-curated lifestyle we all wish to have. “Guests want exciting places to live in,” Klafeta says, “and to be taken care of.” Thus Bangtel was born—a design-hospitality firm with ultra-hip furnished homes available for short- and long-term stays. Even smarter, nearly all elements of the sophisticated decor are also available for purchase, including cowhide rugs from CB2, Interior Define sofas and artwork from Jacob Thomas, transforming each space into a living showroom. Today, in partnership with Chicago developer New Era Chicago, Klafeta operates 14 properties, including an enormous Southwestern-themed Wicker Park multi-unit slated to open this summer and a flat with a stunning backyard located in New York City’s Harlem. Each Bangtel home features around-the-clock concierge service; a fully stocked minibar; and a menu of in-room amenities like massages, browscaping, garment repair and even a puppy on demand if need be. Given her expertise (and her experience styling for the Property Brothers TV show), it comes as no surprise to learn that Klafeta has also caught the eye of production executives; rumor has it she’s slated to star in an upcoming HGTV series. “Stay tuned,” Klafeta says—and we will. –CR

With Trunk Club, Brian Spaly has utterly disrupted conventional garment retailing—and we all look a lot better for it.

“I have an affinity for Marshall Fields, Sears and Montgomery Ward,” says Brian Spaly. “But that legacy has faded. I saw an opportunity to create the next great Chicago apparel company. That’s my ambition.” With Trunk Club, a brand that Spaly launched in 2009, it’s beginning to look as if he has already achieved his goal. The remarkably successful concept addresses the general sartorial cluelessness of men by shipping them boxes of fashion-forward apparel to try on at home. If they don’t like the stuff, they return it. No shopping—but still great guidance. “People love to have awesome clothes but don’t like the process of getting them,” he says. While the operation began as just an e-tailer, Trunk Club now has seven locations (three in the greater Chicago area, as well as Dallas, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.), called “clubhouses,” where clients can pick up their items or work one-on-one with personal stylists and try on handpicked pieces based on their fit and style preferences. As Spaly himself notes, he is a disrupter. “There’s really no retail experience that offers this level of service,” says Spaly, whose career in the garment space began as the founder of the men’s clothing label Bonobos. His success, ironically enough, drew the interest of Nordstrom, arguably one of Trunk Club’s natural competitors. The large department store chain acquired Trunk Club last summer, allowing Spaly to expand his inventory—the company now carries more than 100 brands, including Theory, Rag & Bone and Ferragamo—and has recently entered the women’s market. “It’s rare these days to have a job where you produce something,” says Spaly, sitting in his bustling River North headquarters. “I was lucky enough at 30 to focus my career on making products and delight people in the process.” –CR

It’s both radical and simple: Healthy food can be hard to find. Luke Saunders decided to change that.

The idea to put organic, healthful salads in vending machines didn’t come to Luke Saunders as he reflected on his time spent gardening with his mother as a boy. No, the idea stemmed from his travels through the industrial hinterlands as a salesman for metal coatings. Saunders’ job required him to visit out-of-the-way factories and warehouses, and he saw that most of the people there were forced to get by on unhealthy fast food or cheap vending-machine burritos. “I had to travel to these places that most people don’t even know exist,” the soft-spoken 30-year-old says. “And I’d end up going out of my way to get fresh food, so I recognized there was this need.” When Saunders and his wife moved to Chicago in 2013, he quit his sales job and started his company, Farmer’s Fridge, which creates vending machines (although he prefers the term “kiosks”) that sell restaurant-quality salads and snacks. Offerings include several types of salad with bases including romaine, spinach and Napa cabbage; breakfasts like almond-butter oatmeal with banana and toasted coconut; and snacks like Greek yogurt with granola. After three years of struggle—and burning through his life savings—it appears Saunders’ bet is paying off. There are 40 Farmer’s Fridge kiosks in the city (and more on the way), and Whole Foods is starting to carry his salads as well. “The response has been great,” Saunders says. “From the first day, it was clear people really care about getting a high-quality product. If you make it high quality, people will buy it.” –JR

Using up-to-date designs and exotic materials—as well as old-school techniques—bespoke shoemaker Brandi Devers is breaking the mold.

Standing in Brandi Devers’ home studio is like standing at the crossroads of time. Dark wood fixtures, mannequins draped in flapper dresses and rows of leather goods in various stages of completion give off a traditionalist vibe, yet hanging exotic skins and two rambunctious French bulldogs reveal her absolutely up-to-date sensibility. It’s hard to believe this stylish young woman is a cobbler, a word that usually evokes images of white-haired men hunched over wooden clogs. “I’ve had a lot of shoemakers reach out to me and say, ‘You don’t make any sense,’” Devers says. Customers of her growing business don’t seem to mind, snatching up custom-made leather goods with exotic skins including crocodile loafers and perch combat boots. Prices can range up to $20,000 or more, with the higher end taken by unexpected one-off items like ostrich footballs and alligator-wrapped headphones ($1,600). Before turning to shoes, Devers studied fashion in Los Angeles, inspired in part by the clothing store her mother owned. “For me, fashion felt oversaturated,” she says. “So I came back to Chicago to SAIC and took a shoemaking course. From there, I was fascinated.” She had apprenticeships in Sweden and Wales with top artisans, and finished school in 2012. The majority of her clients find her on Instagram—that’s where The Frye Company, which subsequently partnered with her on a customization event at its flagship store, spotted her. “I love making what I feel in the moment,” Devers says. “I’m like, ‘I want to make a pair of shoes. Oh no, now I want to make a baseball!’” We’ll take a pair of those too. –SJ